I just finished reading Brian McLaren’s book The Last Word and the Word After That. (No – not his newest book. I’m cheap, so I bought this one at 50% off and am waiting to read The Secret Message of Jesus until it’s on sale too.) On the surface the book is mostly about the doctrine of hell, its development and its perversions. Though McLaren admits that some of his scholarship about the historical development of the idea of hell is speculative, his real point is the book is rock solid: an obsession with hell as Western Christendom has portrayed it for centuries distracts us from Jesus’ message of the coming Kingdom of God.
Here's how that works: When we view salvation as simply fire insurance, a way to escape hell and make it into heaven, we miss the ethical thrust of the Old Testament prophets and all of the New Testament. When we add to that our Protestant understanding of the means of salvation, we exclude our actions from the equation, allowing us to believe they are of no consequence. That leads, McLaren says, to a tacit approval of systemic injustice in our world. Assuming that we have the correct belief, we focus on the don’ts of the Bible’s commands and label all the do’s pejoratively as “works righteousness.” Hence we endorse agendas that overlook issues of social justice in today’s world, and even exacerbate it by promoting the commercialized Christianity that is so prevalent in America.
When I was back in Colorado in May, I had a conversation with my old high school Young Life leader about issues of poverty and the social gospel. Because of his own theological beliefs and his work's emphasis on evangelism, he understandably sought to remind me that “poverty exists because of sin.” I agree with one reading of that phrase, but probably not the reading he intended.
Since I’ve been living in Pittsburgh, I’ve seen more of how the sin of oppression unfairly forces poverty and other ills upon the already poor, regardless of their own personal morality. I think my friend in Colorado meant that individuals sin and end up in poor circumstances as a result of their own sin. Theologically he’s more conservative than I am, and as McLaren suggests, I bet his doctrines of hell and salvation influence that interpretation of poverty. But I think geography has a factor as well.
In rural America, where I grew up, systemic discrimination and injustice occurs on a smaller scale than in big cities. Racism is present, but poverty is more often the lot of pregnant teenagers and single parents, making it too easy to blame their circumstance on individual sin, especially sexual sin. In that environment, people see individual sins more than systemic and corporate sin. The same is probably true in many suburbs.
But does that mean it that systemic sin and oppression do not exist in rural areas? To what extent do rural communities actually endorse sins of oppression by passively ignoring them because they do not perceive the effects? What about suburban areas? Does education play a role in these differences? What would Jesus have to say to the rural church about poverty, oppression, and sin?